Evaluating Bryan Chapell’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching


[Editor’s  Note: This post provides a summary and evaluation of Bryan Chapell’s approach to Christ-centered preaching. If you are already familiar with Chapell’s method you could skip ahead to the evaluation.]

In 1994, thirty-three years after the publication of Edmund Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology, Bryan Chapell released Christ-Centered Preaching. The volume has become a standard homiletics text for many evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges. Chapell served as president of Covenant Theological Seminary since 1994-2012, after having spent a decade in pastoral ministry. In 2013, he returned to local church ministry serving as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois. He is the author of ten books and a plethora of popular and scholarly articles.


Chapell sees his own work as following in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos and Edmund Clowney: “When Christ-Centered Preaching was published . . . I was launching my redemptive preaching canoe on a small stream fed by a few headwaters—the likes of Geerhardus Vos, Edmund Clowney and John Sanderson” (“The Future of Expository Preaching,” Presbyterion 30, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 74). Chapell asserts that authority and redemption are the two words “about which the whole of this work could be wrapped” (Christ-Centered Preaching, 11). In choosing authority and redemption as the key words to summarize Christ-Centered Preaching, Chapell uses two words that could also be used as the key words for Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology.

The author writes in response to what he sees as two enemies of expository preaching. The first is the erosion of biblical authority in favor of subjectivism and relativism; the second is the substitution of duty-oriented, moralistic preaching for Christocentric preaching (Christ-Centered Preaching, 11-12-CCP to follow). The book divides into three primary sections: “Principles for Expository Preaching,” “Preparation of Expository Preaching,” and “Theology for Christ-Centered Messages.” Unlike most other texts that advocate a Christocentric, redemptive-historical approach to preaching, Chapell’s volume contains all of the elements of standard homiletics books: outlining, structure, transitions, illustrations, application, dress, and delivery. The book is strong on theology and technique, a rare combination. As Sidney Greidanus notes, “The author obviously intended this book to be the one book on preaching that seminary students will buy and use throughout their ministry” (Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 283).

Chapell seeks to “communicate how important preaching is and what is really important in preaching” (CCP, 16). The author contends that the power of the word is manifested in Christ as the divine λόγος, and the power of the word is applied in faithful preaching (CCP, 18-23). Chapell desires “to identify the commitments a preacher assumes in developing a well constructed sermon” (CCP, 34). He understands that truth, by itself, is not a sermon. To be classified as a sermon, the preaching of truth must be unified, purposive, and applicable (CCP, 35).

Chapell stresses the necessity of determining a text’s “Fallen Condition Focus,” which is “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage” (CCP, 40-42). Identifying the Fallen Condition Focus allows the preacher to identify the “So what?” of the sermon, which Chapell asserts is necessary for an instance of preaching to be a sermon as such (CCP, 44). He writes,

No passage relates neutral commentary on our fallenness. No text communicates facts for information alone. The Bible itself tells us that its pages instruct, reprove, and correct.” Go expects scriptural truths to transform his people. Faithful preaching does the same. The preacher who identifies a passage’s FCF for his congregation automatically gears them to consider the Bible’s solutions and instructions for contemporary life (CCP, 44).

Chapell explains “basic tools and rules for selecting and interpreting texts” (CCP, 50). He insists on the historical-grammatical method and on the observation of the passage’s historical, cultural, literary, canonical, and redemptive-historical contexts: “We determine the meaning of a passage by seeing not only how words are used in the context of a book or its passages, but also how the passage functions in the entire scope of Scripture” (CCP, 70-73). Chappell footnotes Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology for an explanation of the grammatical-historical interpretive method, which both Kaiser and Chappell affirm, without noting the stark differences in the way they understand the method. Chappell provides no mention of the fact that Kaiser rejects the use of the analogy of Scripture (which Chappell affirms) as “wrongheaded historically, logically, and biblically” (Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 26).

The fourth chapter concludes the discussion on principles for expository preaching and seeks to “identify the historical, homiletical, and attitudinal components of expository messages.” Chapell sees the pattern of biblical exposition as: “present the Word; explain what it says; and exhort based on what it means,” which generally consists of explanation, illustration, and application (CCP, 76). Chapter 5 begins the second section of the book, which concerns the preparation of expository sermons (CCP, 76). To this end, he advocates the use of “Six Critical Questions.” The first three “relate to the preacher’s research of the text’s meaning”; the second three “determine how the preacher will relate the text’s meaning” (CCP, 100-101). He considers outlining and structuring as crucial to the sermon as a whole: “a key to the revival of effective exposition is teaching pastors to hone the structure of their messages so that the truth of Scripture can shine clearly through this long-trusted approach” (CCP, 130-138). Application, Chapell argues, “fulfills the obligations of exposition” because “at its heart preaching is not merely the proclamation of truth, but it is truth applied” (CCP, 199-200).

While Chapell refers to Christ-centered preaching throughout the volume, it is only in the final two chapters that he directly addresses a redemptive-historical approach to interpretation and preaching (CCP, 261-312). According to Chapell, the entire process of expository preaching depends on “a clear identification of the Fallen Condition Focus,” which gives the sermon a “distinct aim,” “unified purpose,” and “relevant application” (CCP, 263). Alongside homiletical considerations, the author’s theological argument for his position flows from the contention that “Scripture continually aims to restore some aspect of our brokenness to spiritual wholeness” (CCP, 263). Chapell insists that, without having identified the Fallen Condition Focus, “we do not really know what a text is about” and that we “should never preach on a passage until we have determined an FCF the Holy Spirit intended this Scripture to address” (CCP, 265).

Next, Chapell critiques moralistic preaching as sub-Christian (CCP, 267-269). He believes that it is possible for a preacher to state assertions that are true but, when stated in isolation from canonical context, misleading. Chapell asserts that a sermon which does not recognize that “all Scripture predicts, prepares for, reflects, or results from the ministry of Christ” offers only human-centered, non-redemptive, moralistic messages that are damaging to true faith (CCP, 280-281). He points out that the Bible gives moral instruction within a redemptive context, and ignoring that context “promotes pharisaism or prompts despair” (CCP, 285).

Chapell’s final chapter provides methods for the construction of “expository sermons that reflect the redemptive content of every biblical text” (CCP, 288). He begins with a broad perspective, instructing the preacher to capture the redemptive flow, indentify the Fallen Condition Focus, and specify the Christ-focus of the text. His approach necessitates identifying and applying the redemptive principles evident in every text. The author believes that the bridge between the world of the text and contemporary world lies in the mutual condition of fallenness and the need for grace. Chapell contends that the preacher who embraces the principles he advocates will be able to “explain the role of any epoch, event, person, and passage within the divine crusade of redemption, i.e., the sovereign victory of the Seed of the Woman over Satan” (CCP, 297).


Christ-Centered Preaching has been a classic text on homiletics since its 1994 publication. Any professor teaching an introductory course in Christ-centered preaching will find it difficult to avoid assigning this book. It focuses on the fundamentals of sermon preparation without losing a broad, coherent theological vision. Throughout, Chappell argues that method is not neutral; it is a theological matter. And this contention lends weight to his critique of atomistic, moralistic preaching.

Nevertheless, the volume is deficient in presenting a comprehensive vision for Christ-centered preaching. While claiming that Christ-Centered Preaching is in the tradition of Vos and Clowney, Chapell’s text lacks any overarching eschatological focus. What drives Chapell’s Christocentric method is the commitment to finding the Fallen Condition Focus of the passage, only subsequently discerning the Christ-focus of the text. When one reads in Chapell that our “hope resides in the assurance that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF),” one might conclude that a depravity hermeneutic is central to Chapell’s approach (CCP, 41). The danger in this is a methodological transformation from eschatologically oriented Christocentricity to anthropocentricity.

Chapell does not discuss the two-age eschatology that is central to the Christocentric method of Geerhardus Vos and is reflected in Clowney’s work as well. Clowney writes, “Preaching that has lost urgency and passion reveals a loss of the eschatological perspective of the New Testament” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 67). Richard Gaffin summarizes Vos’s approach,

Within the wide variety of literary genres present in Scripture, there is a common overall historical focus with an eschatological orientation. Specifically, that controlling framework is the history that begins with the entrance of human sin into the originally good creation; incorporates along the way the history of Israel, his chosen covenant people; and reaches its culmination in the person and saving work of the incarnate Christ, the triune God’s supreme, nothing less than eschatological self-revelation” (“Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949),” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald K. McKim (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 1017).

Consequently, Chapells’s approach to biblical theology in preaching could cause some to have a flattened reading of Scripture. The primacy of Fallen Condition Focus gives man centrality in biblical interpretation and tends toward an individualized view of the gospel and salvation, obscuring that the gospel message is the message of the kingdom (Mk 1:15; Luke 4:43). Chapell’s Fallen Condition Focus, though a helpful exegetical tool, when used as the interpretive and sermonic starting point could lead to a neglect of canonical intertextuality and reduce the perceived exigency of whole-Bible Scripture saturation. One of the problems with contemporary interpretation and preaching is the dominance of this question as a starting point: “How does this text testify of me?” The preacher’s responsibility is not simply to apply the biblical story to the lives of his hearers but to apply the lives of his hearers to the biblical story and call them to find themselves in the story of Jesus. Beginning with the fallen condition of the hearer feeds the individualism that many already bring to the text. This anthropocentric approach to the text and to sermon preparation can subtly center the individual and present Christ primarily as the answer to the individual’s problem

When one understands the Christian life itself eschatologically, biblical interpretation must begin with Christ, the eschatological man, and his eschatological Kingdom. Although Chapell recognizes that the biblical text is marked by historical progression and epochs that all relate to Christ, he never points his reader toward the vertical or eschatological dimension, the dimension that reminds the preacher that Scripture is a narrative always headed somewhere—toward Christ and the consummation of his kingdom (Rev 1:8, 17; 21:6, 8; 22:13). Anyone who desires to produce Christ-centered preaching must not ignore the Christocentric, eschatological pull of Scripture.

Chapell also contends that, though unlikely, “preachers may not specifically mention Jesus in some sermons and yet these messages can remain Christ-centered” (CCP, 295). But, as Graeme Goldsworthy says, “Why would you even want to try to preach a Christian sermon without mentioning Jesus?” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 115). Beyond that, it is impossible for a Christian preacher to preach a Christ-centered sermon without specifically mentioning Jesus because all legitimate biblical interpretation and application is mediated through Christ. Russell D. Moore helpfully explains,

[Preaching Christ] means seeing all reality as being summed up in Christ and showing believers how to find themselves in the story of Jesus. . . . Why can’t I simply say true things from the Scripture without showing how it fits together in Christ? It is because apart from Christ, there are no promises of God. In his temptation of Jesus, Satan quotes Scripture and he doesn’t misquote the promises: God wants His children to eat bread, not starve before stones; God will protect His anointed One with the angels of heaven; God will give His Messiah all the kingdoms of the earth. All this is true. What is satanic about all of this, though, is that Satan wanted our Lord to grasp these things apart from the cross and the empty tomb. These promises could not be abstracted from the Gospel. The people in the pews can go to hell clinging to Bible verses abstracted from Jesus” (“Beyond a Veggie Tales Gospel: Preaching Christ from Every Text,” Southern Seminary Magazine, vol. 76, no. 1, Spring 2008, 15).

Chapell insists that sermons must preach grace, but how can grace be detached from the person and work of Christ? While mentioning the name of Jesus or events from His life does not necessarily make a sermon biblically faithful or Christ-centered, Chapell is mistaken when he asserts “Theocentric preaching is Christ-centered preaching” (CCP, 296).

For instance, a sermon on Exodus 20:14 (“You shall not commit adultery”) could note that the command comes from a sovereign God who has been the redeemer of his people (Ex 20:1-2), explain that adultery violates God’s design (Gen 1:21-25), and enumerate negative consequences for disobeying the command. This sermon would be theocentric. It would speak of sin, redemption, and judgment. It would say true things. But it would be sub-Christian. Without mentioning Jesus, this is not a Christian sermon. Ephesians, for example, explains that adultery has always been evil because it lies to the world about Christ and the church (5:22-32). According to Paul, the “mystery” of the ages is further revealed in the one-flesh union of Christ and the church. The one-flesh union of male and female was created to prefigure the archetype. Marriage was created to show us Christ and his faithful love. It is no less egregious to preach about marriage without reference to Christ than it would be to preach about the sacrificial system without mentioning him. Theocentric preaching leads away from Christ and his gospel when interpretation and application is not mediated through him.

Biblically, Christ as king is primary, not the needs of individuals (Eph 1:10; Col. 1:18). The preacher’s hermeneutical and homiletical starting point must be to relate the text to the person and work of Christ and eschatological fulfillment in his kingdom. Commenting on Ephesians 1:10 Peter O’Brien writes, “Christ is the one in whom God chooses to sum up the cosmos, the one in whom he restores harmony to the universe. He is the focal point, not simply the means, the instrument, or the functionary through whom all this occurs” (The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 111-112). Bryan Chapell has furthered the conversation about Christ-centered preaching and his work will remain foundational as we attempt to sum up all things, including expository preaching, in Christ.

Other posts in this series:

Evaluating Edmund Clowney’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching

Evaluating Sidney Greidanus’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching

Evaluating Graeme Goldsworthy’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching


By |January 28th, 2015|Categories: Blog|Tags: |

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today